Support groups

The Church of B-school

September 14, 2011: 9:38 AM ET

Sharing pieces of your emotional past sounds more like the stuff of support groups than MBA programs, but schools are recognizing a need to add these experiences to their curriculum.

By Shelley DuBois, writer-reporterbusinessmen sitting around a campfire

FORTUNE -- About an hour into a leadership class at Columbia Business School, all 50-odd students were sitting rail-straight with their eyes closed. A blonde research associate with the slightest hint of a German accent cooed instructions at the front of the class. "Notice the sensation of your shoes," he said.

Personal Leadership & Success, which is taught by leadership expert Hitendra Wadhwa, is considered one of the "softer" offerings at Columbia, especially when compared to "hard" courses such as finance. The idea behind it is that good leadership begins with self-knowledge, hence the meditation exercise.

It may seem far out, but there are similar classes at business schools across the country. Stanford has offered a class called "Touchy-Feely" since 1966. And a class at Harvard Business School takes this idea of self-knowledge through group learning a step further.

Recreating the community group

The class, developed by former Medtronic (MDT) CEO and Harvard management professor Bill George, runs on the premise that groups of business-minded leaders can offer better leadership guidance than other networks, including family and friends. For this class, Harvard MBAs from different backgrounds are put into small groups where they complete coursework together and share deeply personal experiences.

Those shared experiences can fill an unmet need for community. Americans have become less social, George argues in his recently published book True North Groups. He cites the work of fellow Harvard professor Robert Putnam, whose research has shown that Americans' participation in groups outside of work, such as rotary clubs or religious groups, has plummeted. According to Putnam's research, the number of people attending meetings of any kind of club in the U.S. dropped by 58% from 1975 to 2000.

That's where some business schools are starting to step in, and students are responding. Personal Leadership & Success is one of the top 10 most popular electives for second-year MBA students at Columbia out of about 200 elective courses. Since 2008, over 600 students have applied every year for the 240 spots in Bill George's class at Harvard (George now teaches a version for executives). This year, the Personal Leadership & Success program for MBAs is expanding to take on 60 more students per year.

Some students say they are attracted to these kinds of courses because they feel like they are learning to lead in a vacuum. According to Rye Barcott, a Duke Energy (DUK) employee and Harvard Business School alum who took George's class, the problem with many leaders today has little to do with their ability to crunch numbers, but rather a lack of values. "When you think about the biggest failures of corporate executives, they're not necessarily technical failures, but ethical ones, " Barcott says. More

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